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How Social and Emotional Learning Could Harm Our Kids

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s note: The following is a critique of a social and emotional learning program called MindUP that I have covered in other blogs (see list below) and in a feature in Scientific American Mind (visit “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control”).  Please also read a response to this critique, posted separately, from MindUP’s Rebecca Calos. I hope this debate provides food for thought about how to best encourage healthy social and emotional development in our children.

By Tina Olesen

Courtesy of Elizabeth Albert via Flickr.

“Self-regulation” is the latest buzz word in education, and the MindUP curriculum for schools, conceived by actor Goldie Hawn, capitalizes on it. MindUP is marketed to teachers as a means of helping children to develop self-regulation, which is another way of saying “self-control.” The program’s “core practice” involves teaching children focused breathing techniques while they also practice non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts, which is supposed to help them calm down and be less anxious. Hawn’s curriculum is also supposed to make children feel happier and more optimistic. This is all purported to help them to be better able to learn. The truth is that MindUP can interfere with a child’s innate self-regulator, the conscience, impeding his moral development and thus his ability to learn. Rather than help him develop self-control, it trains him to manipulate his mind and manipulate others to get pleasurable feelings for himself.

The “core practice” taught in MindUP is akin to certain forms of Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation including Anapanasati and Samadhi. In MindUP, the teacher strikes a Zenergy chime, and students are generally asked to sit cross legged, palms up and eyes closed. They are to direct their attention to the sound of the chime and focus intently on their breathing. The chime can gradually evoke a conditioned response in the children, as similar tools do in Buddhist monks. Teachers are encouraged to use this core practice several times a day. Mindfulness meditation such as this can be a way of bringing the mind into an altered state of consciousness. Many people who practice meditation have encountered unexpected negative side effects such as a sensation of being disconnected from one’s body or from reality, among other frightening reactions. Teachers of MindUP are exposing children to these potential dangers.

To teach a child to practice non-judgmental awareness is to risk interfering with the child’s ability to heed his sense of right and wrong. A child must make judgements to choose between right and wrong actions. When he acts in accordance with his sense of what is right, he grows in moral character, and develops greater self-control. While MindUP claims to be teaching non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings, it actually teaches a child to judge any thought or feeling besides optimism and happiness as bad. It shows him how to escape the warnings of his conscience with pleasurable feelings–to make himself feel good even when he has done or experienced something that he ought to feel bad about. The program even encourages a child to do things for others with the motive of getting a pleasurable sensation, a dopamine high, for himself. Thus, rather than practicing self-control, children instead practice self-indulgence. They learn to escape from reality and difficult relationships, rather than working through them.

Courtesy of stephanski via Flickr.

The way to help the child develop real self-control is tried and true: a caring adult patiently and unflaggingly commits to the moral training of that child. Directing, warning, correcting and disciplining day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, the adult encourages the child to do what is right, whether or not it feels good. When a child consistently chooses to act in accordance with what is right, he develops moral character. As he develops moral character, he becomes increasingly capable of governing himself and applying himself to his studies, and he develops the self-control required for learning. This can be a long and arduous process that requires self-sacrifice and much patience on the part of a parent or teacher. There are no short cuts. As Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel once said, “The test of every religious, political or educational system is the man which it forms. If a system injures the intelligence it is bad. If it injures the character it is vicious. If it injures the conscience it is criminal.” As a society, we risk injury to our children’s consciences at our own peril.

Tina Olesen is a school teacher on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. She examined the MindUP curriculum after hearing about it in her local school district.


For more on MindUP, see:

  1. Goldie Hawn Plunges into Brain Science
  2. The Education of Character: Teaching Control with a Cotton Ball [Video]
  3. The Education of Character—Stoking Memory with Stones [Video]
  4. The Education of Character: Your Brain in a Coke Bottle [Video]
  5. The Education of Character: Jumping Jacks for the Mind [Video]
  6. The Education of Character: Carefully Considering Craisins [Video]


Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sudhir.voleti 10:50 am 11/27/2012


    I’m familiar with and have practiced Vipassana ‘mindfulness’ meditation. It is not recommended for children below 6 in any circumstance (because they are unable to organize their thoughts very well) and only with careful oversight for children below 14 (because they’re not emotionally stable enough to practice equanimity).

    IMO, the attempt to impugn negative side-effects to meditation practice wasn’t in great taste. Not worthy of SciAm, I would say.



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  2. 2. sacscale 11:59 am 11/27/2012

    This article “impugned” the use of meditation for children.

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  3. 3. huntershoptaw 12:48 pm 11/27/2012

    And I hear that nap time can cause children to experience a state of dreaming that can lead to nightmares. Better cut out all sleeping too.

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  4. 4. SpoonmanWoS 1:58 pm 11/27/2012

    Oh, good lord…people are actually following a child-rearing technique created by an ACTRESS? Seriously, people, get your heads out of your asses.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 4:03 pm 11/27/2012

    You should consider what children are learning at school and from each other, especially in urban settings!

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  6. 6. julianpenrod 6:54 pm 11/27/2012

    This may cause this not to be printed, but, an unusual situation, actual criticism of a new “education” system in the U.S. Usually, if an “expert” didn’t prostitute themself to scrawling imprecise, nebluous and misleading doggerel that appears to “support” a lie, then they just didn’t talk about it, effectively not providing opposition that could lead to its downfall. But the market may be shrinking or becoming more severe. Now, patent deceit in the form of a new “system” is opposed by those with a stake in the market, who don’t want to see their profits cut into. “Education” is awash with frauds from Montessori, to “whole language”, to “relevance”, to “self esteem”, to “role models”, to “teach yourself”, to “asking the right questions is more important than getting the right answer”, to expanded classroom size, to calculators in kindergarten, to computers in the classroom, tograde yourself, to LATIC. There may not be much room for a new swindle.
    An amount of the criticism is against characteristics common to many previous frauds. Calculated sophistry favoring the scam, support by a celebrity. Conside the “argument” for calculators in kindergarten, endorsed by none other than Carl Sagan. Sagan, whose every word “science” devotees agree with, even before hearing it, proclaimed that calculators were “the mathematical equivalent of the invention of writing”. Therefore, he “concluded”, children should train in calculators before they even know what numbers are. But the written word was only a means of rendering verbage in a visual form to be retained, calculators did away with the work of solving problems! The written word didn’t take over and provide prose without the need of work by the author, calculators do do away with the work by the individual. Numerals are the mathematical equivalent of the alphabet, not calculators! But the majority of the populace were either so literally dim or gullible that they couldn’t see this, and so a generation of students don’t even know what numbers look like. Proponents of “whole language” claimed that making sounds was an innate ability of children and immersion among speaking adults led them to transform sound into speaking, so drawing figures is a quality kids have in common, and immersion in seeing written pages all around them and read to them should automatically train them in all the aspects of written English. Including vowels having long and short sounds at different times, some letters being silent, diphthongs, “c” having up to three different sounds, homonyms. “Self esteem” said that, if students felt they were perfect going in, they would be more enthused about learning. Montessori said that every student has only one particular combination of conditions under which they learn, so they should always provide themselves with it.
    But for those who don’t slavishly believe in the MindUP program, who are able to critique the methodology and “philosophy”, this is an important experience. They can see how something even they take to be a suspicious claim at best can be presented with all the fake frills and phony “credentials” as every suspicious at best claim that “science” does accept. MindUP has a website. MindUP has positive reportage in various venues, including NPR and It has approving comments by actual supposed users, such as that from Tyler G., whose last name curiously isn’t provided, on The Hawn Foundation website. And it has a complete sophistic “background”, with full technical glossary and claimed “experimental” results, glowingly describing it as unquestionably the only possible explanation for the situation. Exactly the same things every swindle in “science” comes complete with, and never once anything even approaching evidence that that swindle is legitimate.

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  7. 7. MarkWilliams 7:28 pm 11/27/2012

    Sorry Ingrid, I don’t think you know what you are talking about. I have a very high regard for meditation and would recommend it to anyone including kids. The mind is relentlessly judgmental, and it is helpfull to take a break from that from time to time.

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  8. 8. DrKev 7:30 pm 11/27/2012

    I do agree with sudhir.voleti’s sage comment – the appropriateness of mindfulness training for young children is indeed an issue for discussion. And the aims, methods, and results of the MindUP program should be laid bare and openly and honestly discussed. However, that’s not happening here.

    Even without any knowledge of mindfulness meditation (of which the author clearly has very little), or of the MindUP program (of which I have virtually no knowledge), anybody familiar with Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit will have many alarm bells ringing. The author is blatantly scaremongering, clearly reaching to produce as many negative emotional reactions in the readers as possible. Whether the apparent lack of a reasoned argument is the cause of this or purely incidental to it, you can investigate for yourselves.

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  9. 9. Mythusmage 8:18 pm 11/27/2012

    Seems to me that some people are confusing children with adults.

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  10. 10. Neosteo 2:54 am 11/28/2012

    One can make judgements not based on polarised emotions from a place of natural instinct. To think beyond emotion is what children and adults need.

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  11. 11. bcopley 6:22 am 11/28/2012

    The author’s points are based on some common misunderstandings of what “mindfulness training” is about.

    She considers being “non-judgmental” to mean that the adult does not “[encourage] the child to do what is right, whether or not it feels good.” She seems to think that if we stop and pay attention to what’s going on non-judgmentally, that we’ll think that everything is ok. I can see that that is a rational conclusion from a brief reading of what mindfulness is about. But it’s based on a misunderstanding. Mindfulness doesn’t say that whatever happens next is ok, just that whatever is going on now is what it is. You can’t change what’s going on now; you can only see what’s there and choose how to act in the next moment. Might as well see what’s really there. It’s only by paying attention to what’s there now that you can choose how to act next, based on your principles. And it’s only by cultivating non-judgmental attention that you can pay attention at all; otherwise you’re just pushing everything away and getting upset at yourself and/or everything else, and that’s where real trouble starts, whether it’s internally- or externally-directed, for kids AND adults.

    Mindfulness training is not a loosy-goosy do-whatever-you-want practice; it actually takes a lot of discipline to sit and pay attention to the breath. Good mindfulness requires both non-judging and discipline; they are not in conflict.

    Also, mindfulness is the opposite of “[teaching] a child to judge any thought or feeling besides optimism and happiness as bad.” This is a misunderstanding and is antithetical to the idea of non-judging. Encouraging someone to see what is really there is not going to cause them to “learn to escape from reality and difficult relationships, rather than working through them”. It’s quite the opposite.

    These and other common misconceptions are addressed here:

    As for the “conditioning” with Buddhist monks, I can’t see what support the author has for this claim. I do suggest she talk to a Buddhist monk! When you slow down and pay non-judgmental attention enough to see what is going on, you see that you actually have a choice to make, even in situations where you previously thought you didn’t have a choice (acting out in anger, addition behaviors, etc.). It is the very opposite of conditioning: by paying attention, you see you have free will. As it happens, when you do this you also see moral values of compassion and respect. This is a marvelous thing. Even people who don’t start meditating for these moral reasons find that they come up.

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  12. 12. E81ER 4:38 pm 11/28/2012

    The lack of critical thinking displayed by a Canadian school teacher is much more worrisome to me than any program being hocked by a celebrity.

    A valid criticism of the MindUP program would question what evidence there is to support practicing mindfulness at that early age, and whether any studies have been done to evaluate the efficacy of MindUP specifically. Also, you could question how much the MindUP program costs for licensing and training and whether those costs are justifiable or if an alternative way to introduce mindfulness into schools is available.

    If you’re worried about kids having out-of-body experiences at school, look for the ones chugging caffeinated energy drinks at recess.

    If conditioned responses to bells ringing in schools is cause for concern, then I think we’re all in trouble.

    And dopamine? Won’t somebody think of the dopamine!? Certainly, but worry about the effects of tossing angry birds at unsuspecting pigs for hours on end, not 60 seconds of deep breathing 3 times a day.

    Mindfulness is not Buddhism, and it’s certainly not astrology, homeopathy, voodoo, gems, or any other of the kooky things people do on Vancouver island. I hope that’s the basis of your concern, but a simple google search would’ve informed you otherwise.

    There’s a growing body of research (scientific evidence!) supporting mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as an effective treatment for a wide variety of mental health issues, and especially relapse prevention.

    Proactive prevention and/or early intervention is the best approach in every aspect of well-being is it not? I assume that’s the rational behind introducing mindfulness into schools.

    I was first exposed to mindfulness at university, and like many people, I wished I had been exposed to it sooner. It’s essentially free, it’s easy, it takes practice to see the best results, but the potential for negative side-effects is virtually nil, and it’s supported by legitimate scientific research.

    The curriculum and the methodology used in Canadian schools can’t even boast that, as it’s often not supported by evidence, but instead cobbled together by teachers, parents, and politicians with strong opinions (tried and true?) And that’s not my own criticism, that comes from a former Dean of Education in a Canadian University.

    Lastly, I’m trying not to read too much into the exclusive use of male pronouns when describing children needing guidance. I don’t know if you’re projecting or pathologizing fidgeting and restlessness, or if you just happen to work in an all male school. But anyone can benefit from mindfulness, even quiet focused little girls. Removing biases at the top isn’t helped by adding more to the bottom.

    I hope you do some more research and consider giving all your students the opportunity to learn a useful tool for life.

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  13. 13. txbodhi 11:35 pm 11/28/2012

    The author has a number of unscientific misconceptions about insight mindfulness meditation. The method is called vipassana in Buddhism. The so called “non-judgmental” part refers to watching sensation, emotions and thoughts arise and pass away. The goal is to not have aversion for pain, anger, fear, sadness and not to have attachment for pleasure and pleasant states of mind. Part of mindfulness, the clear comprehension part, is seeing how anger, craving, scattered thought, etc., causes the breath to become shallower and irregular, causes the body to tense up. One is using discernment but free of attachment and aversion type judgment. Some non-Buddhist mindfulness teachers neglect this clear comprehension part. The author is confusing mindfulness meditation for concentration meditation. In strong states of concentration one can experience blissful sensations, strong peace and loss of awareness of the body. But in mindfulness meditation you keep aware of the body and its sensations and you are to become aware of any attachment or craving for pleasant sensations and pleasant mental states. The goal is to see the impermanence of body, sensation, mental states not to get attached to the bliss or peace. That results in a more stable long term peaceful equanimity. Insight means intuitive wisdom and that is a different faculty than that of absorbed concentration. The author is quite foggy on these distinctions. Seeing impermanence makes one less greedy, less egotistically attached and thus naturally more moral.

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  14. 14. bucketofsquid 12:12 pm 11/29/2012

    As an ex-Buddhist I can honestly say that improperly supervised meditation can be harmful as well as the many oddball add-ons that we westerners tend to glom onto. That being said, the same is true of pretty much any mental activity. While being an actress means nothing, personal experiences or un-noted education might. I really don’t care who came up with the idea/program. My only question is; what are the results?

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  15. 15. Luke148 8:49 pm 11/2/2014

    It’s very clear that the author is not a meditator herself. If she were, she would know that with beginners and children, nonjudgmental awareness is mostly about observing thoughts and body sensations associated with boredom or restlessness. Right/wrong choices in the sense of “Should I cheat on this test?” don’t enter into it.

    Mindfulness practice engenders the exact opposite of what the author claims. Instead of rewarding herself with a pleasurable stimulus while running away from challenges, the meditator is teaching herself to abide with challenges (in this case, sitting still for one or two minutes) and, through close observation, to neutralize the “judgment” of that (“This is boring;” “I hate this.”)

    “Nonjudgmental” doesn’t mean that judgments don’t arise; it means that you learn the subtle skill of not adding fuel to the fire. You observe it, neither buying into it and making it right, nor resisting it and making it wrong. This gives you more clarity and space with which to see problems and understand them more deeply before taking action.

    The result of this kind of training (and it has been studied extensively) is that children who practice mindfulness learn to “respond” rather than react. Instead of instantly beating up another child they thought was insulting them, they pause for a mindful moment and then respond more wisely. Fights and disciplinary issues decrease dramatically in schools with mindfulness programs.

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